"It's That Man Again" - BBC radio series
"Can I do you now, Sir?" - Mrs Mopp (the office char)
ITMA was a highly successful BBC radio comedy programme aired during the 1940's, taking after the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, broadcast in the States. Broadcasting began on 12th July 1939 with a trial series of four shows, aired fortnightly.
The BBC were keen to present comedy "for the people", rather than the now traditional highbrow stuff. They chose Tommy Handley, a famed Liverpudlian comedian, to write and star in the show. Tommy asked Ted Kavanagh to help with the scripts, and in the best tradition of comedy script-writing, they retired to a local bar (The Langdon Hotel) to discuss the format and begin the creative process.
The name "It's That Man Again" came from a well-known German figure of the time, one Adolf Hitler. Newspapers were fond of using this phrase whenever Hitler made some territorial claim, and Handley felt it was sufficiently topical, if a little long-winded. In the acronym-crazy world of the late 30's, they settled on ITMA, and a legendary show was born.
The first four shows were set on a pirate radio ship, and co-starred Cecilia Eddy, Eric Egan (as a mad Russian inventor), Sam Heppner and Lionel Gamlin. Modelled on the ground-breaking Bandwaggon, (Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch), they were less than successful, and there was some doubt that the series would continue.
"It's being so cheerful as keeps me going"
The above quotation from Mona Lott, one of the show's characters, hits the spot. Why did the show go on? the British public needed humour. Ironically, Hitler also enabled the show to go on - after the delcaration of war, and major disruption to the BBC's schedules, ITMA was relaunched for a second series of 21 weekly episodes broadcast from Bristol, with a new cast, a new setting and to greater public and critical acclaim.
The setting was a ficticious Government Ministry, the Office of Twerps, Handley being cast in the role of Minster of Aggravation and Mysteries. The new cast included Vera Lennox as his secretary Dotty, Maurice Denham as Mrs. Tickle (the office char) and Vodkin the Russian inventor, Jack Train and Sam Costa.
Later series brought new characters, new settings (a seaside resort named "Foaming at the Mouth") and new cast members, including Sydney Keith, Horace Percival, Dorothy Summers and Fred Yule. Success was almost guaranteed.
The characters and catch-phrases soon caught the public's imagination. Funf, the German spy's catchphrase "This is Funf speaking" was to work its way into many private telephone conversations over the next few years, Mrs Mopp's "Can I do you now, Sir", the inveterate toper Colonel Chinstrap's "Don't mind if I do", and the well-known "Ta-ta for now", abbreviated to TTFN.
Although not in the same league as the Goon Show, ITMA was nonetheless good comedy for its day - a cutting-edge mixture of satire, parody, slapstick, and wit. Many British folk still have fond rememberances of fireside laughter and calling out the show's catchprases. To illustrate the impact, at a production of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' in Manchester, the character Ariel says "I go, I go...", and the audience shouted back "I come back", the catchphrase of Ali Oop.
The last ITMA went out on 6th January 1949. Three days later, Tommy Handley died. Sadly, this was one show which could not go on - he was such a key figure in it that ITMA died the same day.